Assembly elections: Odisha, BJP's sunrise state in the east-coast blueprint

The BJP has set a target of winning 120 of the 147 Assembly seats in Odisha, with its president, Amit Shah, keeping a close watch on preparations
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah discovered the electoral allure of the east coast months after the party’s Lok Sabha triumph in 2014 and realised it was the region to dive into before the 2019 battle. The coastal plains traverse Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal.


The seashore quintet contributes 128 of the 543 Lok Sabha MPs (excluding the two nominated Anglo-Indian members) but has cold-shouldered the BJP, except occasionally for Andhra Pradesh and Odisha in small measure.


The party believes the east’s outlook is about to “change for the better”. “Usually, party presidents focus only on their turfs but Shah gives equal importance to states where the BJP’s base is small,” a senior leader said.


The BJP had singled out Odisha as its sunrise state after the party faced a “stiff challenge” from Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, remained embroiled in coalition related issues with Telugu Desam in Andhra Pradesh, and floundered in Tamil Nadu.


“Target 120 (of the 147 assembly seats)” is the catchphrase adopted for the Odisha polls that will happen simultaneously with the Lok Sabha elections in 2019.  “There are two main reasons for our confidence — people’s trust in (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi  and that Odisha has benefitted from this year’s Union Budget,” said the leader, citing the Rs 52.52-billion allocation for railway projects in the state, a Rs 1.5 billion uptick over the previous allotment.


The BJP was chuffed when Modi accorded eight “backward” Odisha districts the status of “aspirational” districts, but Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik opted out of the scheme. “Patnaik’s dole politics to nurture a vote bank has limitations. Odisha’s migrant labourers in Surat and Delhi wonder why they don’t see the same development in their state. The buzzword is ‘aspiration’,” a central BJP functionary said.

A by-election — the first in the state since 2014 — to the Bijepur Assembly seat from Bargarh district on February 24 has become the epicentre of a clash between the principal contenders, the BJP and the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD). The Congress that held the seat, vacated by the death of its legislator Suhal Sahu, has fallen by the wayside after the BJD fielded Sahu’s wife, Ritarani.


Patnaik has mobilised 39 “star” canvassers, announced a drought package, and promised to make Bijepur a municipality. Shah, on the other hand, has directed three regional leaders, including state party chief Basanta Panda and legislature party leader K V Singhdeo, to stay put and work under the superintendence of Union minister Dharmendra Pradhan.


Singhdeo noted the BJP nosed out the Congress from Bijepur after it won six of the seven zilla parishad seats in the 2017 local body elections and polled 92,000 votes — 35,000 more than the BJD and the Congress combined.


The local body polls broke the jinx for the BJP. For 10 years, it rode on the BJD’s back and barely registered a presence after the alliance broke. From securing only 36 seats in 2012, the BJP bagged 294 of the 851 zilla parishad seats and won eight zilla parishads in 30 districts. The BJD retained its supremacy, but the Congress slipped to a distant third. “The rural votes we secured will be reflected in our overall vote share,” stressed Singhdeo.


Statistics and vote shares apart, the BJP’s biggest challenge is denting Patnaik’s largely unsullied image. Odisha BJP spokesperson Sajjan Sharma said, “His image is a myth because not a leaf moves without his decree.” A central leader claimed: “There was no credible opposition to Patnaik. Once we came out, we took up issues and coaxed people’s trust.”

The BJP identified healthcare, education, potable water, sanitation, irrigation, agriculture and “above all” law and order as Patnaik’s foibles and crafted a campaign around two images. First, of Dana Majhi who walked 10 km in 2016 carrying the body of his wife, consumed by tuberculosis, for want of transport from a government hospital to his home. Second, of a Dalit minor who committed suicide after being raped allegedly by policemen last October in Koraput’s Musaguda. “Patnaik harped on women’s empowerment. The minor’s tragedy has taken the sheen off  him,” said Singhdeo.


The BJP conceded its campaign would be boosted if it offered an alternate vision and projected a leader. Right now, sources maintained, it will contest under a “collective leadership” although Pradhan’s name is finding currency.

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